Concepts like fundamental rights and dignity often seem deeply abstracted from the day-to-day operations of educational institutions. The Right2Learn Dignity Lab wants to advocate not only for developing a more robust understanding of the concepts themselves but also having our lived experience of education reflect our commitment to these ideas. In fact, according to Right2Learn, (R2L for short) a 17-year-old organization dedicated to studying education and dignity, updating the state’s constitution is a pivotal step in ensuring that all citizens of the state receive a quality education. Although the state’s current educational clause was progressive for the late nineteenth century, members of R2L believe the constitution should be updated to reflect a modern understanding of the relationship between rights, education and human dignity. The current clause articulates the state’s obligation to provide access to public schools for a set amount of time throughout the year but remains inadequate because it does not provide a robust understanding of the purpose and importance of education.

Perhaps most importantly, unlike Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the educational clause in Colorado’s constitution does not explicitly state that education is a fundamental right which is critical for the full development of a human being. As one of the authors of the amendment put it at a recent community town hall, “there are a couple things that are a problem with the current education clause. One thing that’s absent is that education is not recognized as a fundamental right, it is certainly some kind of state service, a public good of some sort, something certainly above food stamps, certainly above trash removal, but nothing close to what it means to have a fundamental right. [Being] a fundamental right means that a right is necessary for the continuation of freedom and justice in our country. We have come to the conclusion after years of study that the central problem, the thing that’s holding back public education in the state of Colorado, is the educational clause.” Although there are not many examples of constitutional language regarding education that reflect this commitment, there are some examples in states like Florida and Kentucky of education being presented as a fundamental commitment and value.

Tania Soto Valenzuela, director of the Right2Learn Dignity Lab, suggests framing education as a mere public service and schools as places where children just learn basic skills misrepresents what schools can and should be. As she put it, “school is much more than that… it’s where we unfold as human beings, it’s where we learn about our responsibilities and duties as members of our society and with the pandemic we’ve really realized how much people at schools have to do and provide for our students and we want that to be reflected in our constitution. We know that education is a fundamental right; it is a thing that makes or breaks a person.”

Valenzuela pointed to the ruling in Lobato v. Colorado (2013) as an example of the consequences of not having a more robust articulation of the right to education present in the state’s constitution. The case was an attempt to adjudicate the concern that students in Colorado were being fundamentally robbed of their constitutional right to an education due to the level of spending on education in the state of Colorado. Colorado has long teetered near the bottom of educational spending often coming in near the bottom 10 of states. In the end, the court ruled that the current level of spending did not constitute a violation of rights, and pointed to the spending on education relative to other critical social services in the state as part of the justification for their ruling. However, the court did not suggest its ruling should be thought of as a justification for the spending habits of Colorado, in fact, the court was quite critical of the state of affairs regarding education. They did however believe that the courts were not the venue to address these shortcomings and suggested that such problems needed to be addressed in the legislature.

Valenzuela believes that without this constitutional amendment, the claim that students are getting less than they deserve will continue to be stifled by the fact that higher standards are not currently undergirded by constitutional law. They hope by amending the constitution they can provide the citizens with the protections necessary to ensure the right to education does not function as a vague commitment to simply keeping the lights on. As Valenzuela put it, “When we pass this amendment that is recognizing the universal right to education, what we’re really recognizing is that the human being has the right to learn and to grow and to do so in harmony with one another.”

The language in the new amendment is designed to reflect the need for educational environments to be spaces where human dignity is affirmed and not denied. For instance, in presenting the new amendment to a group of community members, a co-author of the amendment framed it this way, “our education clause is based on the enduring inalienable and universal quality of human dignity and no matter what it is that happens in the society there is no way whatsoever to take away a person’s dignity. Now whether that person has the experience of dignity is another matter.” As modern humans, we have to spend a tremendous amount of time in formal educational spaces and much of this time occurs during some of our most vulnerable and formative years. For the members of Right2Learn, it is critical that these spaces function to affirm our dignity during these critical moments of development and growth.

Fortunately, in the state of Colorado, citizens can craft legislation themselves and get a proposition on the ballot if they are able to collect enough signatures from each senate district in the state. In this case, Right2Learn has crafted language with their team and has presented the potential constitutional amendment to a variety of community groups including, but not limited to lawmakers, students, and educational professionals. Gathering the needed signatures to have this appear on the ballot will however be no easy feat. Right2Learn has to make the content digestible and understandable for potential signees, and they must also be able to create momentum all throughout the state of Colorado.

Not only do members of the organization have to campaign in all parts of the state, simply printing the needed materials alone will cost the group around $10,000. They have begun the process of collecting signatures and growing public awareness and support in the Denver Metro Area, as that is where many of the group’s members are located; they will soon have to do the legwork of expanding outwards if they hope to accomplish their goal in the short term.

Beyond the logistical difficulties, moving outwards in the state may present challenges in terms of finding support in areas with a sparser concentration of citizens with such a progressive view on the nature of education; people who don’t see a need for the constitution to guarantee any more than it already does. However, despite the swirling controversies regarding the future of education, Right2Learn believes that there will be widespread support for the ballot measure because many Colorado citizens will understand the importance of affirming the human dignity of every child by asserting that education is a fundamental right. One community member at a recent town hall thought this effort would be able to overcome much of the political and ideological tension that exists between the state’s urban and rural areas. As he put it, “I would think in some of these rural districts, like in the eastern plains and stuff where education may not be as well funded and people are discouraged by that, I think they would support something like this because it would allow their child, no matter what nationality they are, to get a proper education.”

Beyond the legal change that occurs by amending the Constitution, the group hopes this pursuit can fuel a needed cultural shift. As Valenzuela put it, “a lot of what we’re trying to do is based on a cultural change, we have to see education as more than a service… it really has to shift into us understanding education as this actualization and hub for potential and a hub for us to explore all of capabilities so it really is making that cultural shift to how we view education and what it does for us.” By raising awareness about their desired constitutional changes through their ongoing community discussions, Rght2learn hopes to provide community members an opportunity to ascertain the material implications of taking these ideas seriously.